Baseball has the longest history of any major sport, and when calling upon its past, the usual rose-tinted cliches spill out of people, almost involuntarily, as though we can’t help it. There are players that seem like they’d be more at home in a myth cycle; it would make more sense if Babe Ruth was a protector of a great river than if he was a person. This tall-tale view of baseball is incomplete, in its way. It led us to forget the truly strange. We remember the Olympians like Cobb, Ruth, Gerhig, Speaker, Johnson, Young, and Mathewson, but the Titans who came before, the Cyclops and Hundred-hands and the despicable and delirious are known now only to the obsessives. And as an obsessive, it is my obligation to you to share what I know.
Ah, Rube. A great pitcher, a power pitcher before people knew that was an actual strategy, a Hall of Famer, and someone without peer in his own time. If he were alive today, he wouldn’t be given anything harder than a wiffleball, because he was basically retarded.
A straightforward account of Rube Waddell’s life would read like a fever dream, a bludingsroman written by three schizophrenics taking turns. Baseball Historian Lee Allan writes:
“He began that year (1903) sleeping in a firehouse in Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling, West Virginia. In between those events he won 22 games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men’s Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married and became separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.”
(I like to imagine the last three items on that list all happening on the same day.)
This was the turn of the century, and the social structure for dealing with someone with retardation, or autism, or any of that, wasnil.There was no one to help Rube Waddell through life, because there wasn’t a problem as far as could be seen. Someone like Rube Wadell could drift through life, getting by on the manual or physical skills they developed, and all their strange behavior would elicit would be odd stories.
And to be sure, Rube had a good heart. He joined the fire brigade in almost every town he travelled to. He wore a red shirt underneath his uniform so that at anytime, he could rip it off like Clark Kent and become Fireman. There are stories, probably apocryphal, of him leaving in the middle of a game to chase after a firetruck. But then, if they’re apocryphal, why do they keep showing up? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there was fire, Rube Waddell was trying to put it out.
Rube was also a notorious drinker, back when the most damage that could do to a career was a mean nickname (Sporting News often referred to the lefty Waddell as “The Sousepaw.”) Rube spent the entirety of his first bonus on booze. The Philadelphia Athletics took to paying him in dollar bills in an attempt to get him to slow down his spending. Waddell would skip out on starts whenever he felt like it for fishing trips, often taking his catcher, Osee Shreckenghost, along with him. He also missed the 1905 World Series injuring his shoulder fighting with his teammate over a straw hat. There were rumors that gamblers got to him, but frankly the straw hat thing seems more likely.
Connie Mack tolerated all of this complete nonsense because he was willing to put up with a little unpredictability for the sake of an otherworldly pitcher like Rube. But when Rube missed a game that cost the As the 1907 Pennant, Connie finally had enough and sold him to the St. Louis Browns. He played three more years with Saint Louis before wearing out their patience, and died in 1914 of tuberculosis.
Waddell was a player ahead of his time, and he still holds a record on the books today (single-season strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher). Based purely on talent, he could probably survive in today’s baseball. But if he was around today, he wouldn’t be let near a baseball field unless there was a Make-A-Wish deal happening.